Archive for April, 2006


So, I keep writing about all that’s bad with life in sterile cubicle land, and it’s not like me to stay on the negative track.  Time for a dose of hope! 

First, there’s a way to address the emotional tone that gets set in a space.  Perhaps the easiest way to set that tone is with color.  Steelcase has a nice PDF that describes the use of color in the office, though I have to say, I’m not wild about their finding that colors like grey and light beige can help to avoid glare — yes, but, personally, I find those drab.  For example, red can be seen as harsh, where green tends to be softer.  Of course, the hue matters, too. 

If you must have a cubicle-filled office, do give some consideration to who will be using the spaces.  I hadn’t given this a lot of thought before, but different workspaces should be configured for different numbers of people.  For example, if you do a lot of heavy-duty concentrating (like working with details, math, etc), you’re more likely to want quiet and privacy (I say more likely because I know people, especially teens and some MBA students, who love to have blaring music when they are steeped deep in thought).  So, you’re cubicle might have higher walls and be smaller.  If you have lots of one-on-one meetings, you’d want a cube with space for meeting, but still to have quiet.  Your office might have different spaces to accomodate different sized groups.  Again, Steelcase has a whole whitepaper on "The State of the Cubicle," discussing "I", "you and I" and "we" spaces. 

Other important thoughts on making cubicles more liveable come from Canada

  • In general, make cubicles walls lower, so people can converse
  • Add windows to cubicles to let light in
  • Use better acoustic tiles to absorb sound

What have YOU done to make a cubicle environment better?

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Category : Your working environment | Blog

Have you ever wondered if you are working in a “sick building?”

Sometimes, people talk about their office or other buildings making them feel sick.  Not just emotionally, but physically.  In fact, it turns out the lots of chemical compounds are present in large buildings.  Furniture, carpeting, and wall coverings all release toxic chemicals.  In the 1970s, during the energy crisis, companies wanted to increase their energy efficiency.  By sealing off lots of natural ventilation to achieve this seemingly greater energy efficiency, they created toxic environments in which chemicals could not escape and recirculated again and again.

Fortunately, in the 1990s, 1990, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) required furniture and carpet manufacturers to label their products with detectable formaldehyde emissions. Have you ever smelled formaldehyde?  Not pleasant!  Well, it’s one of the most bothersome pollutants in offices. 

According to an article by Environmental Science & Technology, between 1985 and 2005, the average levels of formaldehyde released from office systems furniture—with the exception of all-wood products—have dropped by 52%. The amount of chlorinated VOCs (volatile organic compounds — hazardous materials) in the cubicle emissions has decreased by more than 90%, primarily from the elimination of certain adhesive formulations, cleaning chemicals, and blowing agents, she adds. And total VOC emissions have gone down by 40–70%.

So, what do you do if you are running a business and want to make healthier purchases of office furniture, carpeting, and the like.  Do be careful of so-called "green" practices.  Everyone wants to jump on the "green bandwagon," like it’s some type of hip, trendy designation, as people brainwashed — or greenwashed — about living a more healthy lifestyle. 

An organization called the GreenGuard Environmental Institute has arisen.  According to their website, they are an "industry independent, non-profit organization with mission to improve public health and the quality of life through programs that improve indoor air."  They set standards for allowable emissions levels for things like ceilings and floorings in office environments.  They even train people to work with their standards.

What is your work environment doing to your health?  Have you considered what to do if your work setting is less-than-optimal? 

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Category : Your working environment | Blog

What IS it about cubicles that’s so off-putting to many of us?  Yes, some of us adjust to life in that atmosphere, but perhaps we are merely tolerating it, rather than thriving.

Psychological research demonstrates that cubicles can stifle the creativity and memory of workers.

In the field of "cognitive ergonomics," researchers look not just at the physical ergonomics (ie, is my chair at the right height?) but also at how environments affect our psychological functioning, including in the office. They’re questioning the value of office plants and reassessing the corporate contempt for the messy desk.

But is their work looking at the right elements of changing work to fit the person?  It’s hard to allow everyone to do her/his own thing at work, but with suggestions like "let people personalize their spaces" and "it’s OK to be messy…as long as you know where to find your stuff," are we really getting at the core of making work a more enjoyable place to be. 

My sense is that workplaces have become highly unnatural.  Let’s look at nature for a moment.  We generally find open spaces and open vistas.  Trees and flowers and rocks occur randomly, not on a grid system.  Lighting changes throughout the day, and is not fluorescent.  We can detect scents, and they have almost primal messages for us, unlike the stale air in most offices, that might be tinged with the scent of burnt coffee or someone’s too-sweet perfume. 

Business consultant James Wise would seem to agree, indicating that square cubicles are not good visual triggers for the human brains.

It’s also sad that people are demonstrating that plants in the office place can be a distraction.  Most of those tests, like the one cited here had people doing tasks of identification and sorting.  Most knowledge workers are past that point, unless, perhaps, they work in the mailroom.  It’s interesting to note that the people who were studied disliked the looks of plant-less offices, even if they scored better on tests.  Did the plants really make them score worse?  Perhaps the plants got them to think about things other than boring, repetitive tasks.  I would argue that nature is not boring or repetitive. 

If we want to mirror the creativity and renewing spirit of nature at work, perhaps we ought to send the design consultants out into the forest, or the desert, or out on the ocean for a while.  Not to stay in a hotel, but perhaps on a vision quest in nature for 3 to 5 days.  For that matter, let’s send some corporate executives along too, so they can connect with their natural, biological, primal roots. 

I imagine great things could happen by taking people who are steeped in the office world and immersing them in a natural setting, away from the so-called creature comforts.  What do YOU think?

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Category : Your working environment | Blog

In my last posting, about Life in Cubeland, I received a comment from a woman named Anne.  She finds herself heairng pieces of conversations across cubicle walls.  Office noise affects us.   And, in a study conducted at Cornell University, design and environmental analysis professor Gary W. Evans, Ph.D. found that people who work in noisy environments showed increased levels of the stress hormone epinephrine.  Interestingly, few of the study participants reported feeling particularly stressed.

We’re adaptable creatures.  And that fact has its ups and downs.  If you’re sensitive, you may find it harder to adapt, and that’s probably because your nervous system is attuning to what going on around you.  Compared with your less-sensitive colleagues, you may actually consider making changes in your work, like finding ways to make it quieter, while your colleagues ignore the whole volume issue.

In his study, Evans also found that workers in a noisy office had difficulty staying focused.  And they were less likely to make proper adjustments to their chairs and workstations.  This can cause musculoskeletal health problems.

What can you do?  For starters, let your HR and company leadership know that proper acoustics is an issue of workplace well-being.  Consider using earplugs.  And, if it’s really bad, consider changing where you work.

Any other thoughts or ideas on workplace noise? 

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Category : Your working environment | Blog

Last weekend, I hosted a sweet gathering at my home.  Literally.  It was a dessert and sweet wine & apertif party, with a bunch of interesting, tuned in, turned on people.

Somehow, the conversation turned to the workplace, and particularly about OFFICE CUBICLES.  Then, I remembered that my brother had given me a set of minature office cubicles, called The Cubes, and little people to inhabit the cubes.  The rush was on to open the boxes of The Cubes and build cubicles.  Dscn0066Sweet_april_1_april_2006_009_1And to play with the little figures, who can hold things like tiny coffee cups and laptops. 

Why this fascination with the cubicles and thCubepeoplee stiff-bodied miniature office workers?  Well, most people who work in offices have a cubicle.  Before I started business school, way back in 1992, I had my own office.  Friends told me I was way too young to have Sweet_april_1_april_2006_005such a nice office, and it was even a corner office, with beautiful cherry credenza and lush plants.  But, after business school, I got into management consulting, and never had a corporate office again.  Luckily, I have a home office that’s comfortably outfitted.

But there’s a real mystique, or intrigue, or human aspect to cubicles.  A whole humor around them.  Scott Adams makes fun of them in his Dilbert cartoon.  In our own lives, we decorate them.  We congregate around them.  But mostly, we hate them.  Alas, those oft-grey places where we’re "penned in."

Office2_1 What are YOUR feelings about office cubicles?  I’d really like to know.  I’m creating a whole series here on working environments, and your input matters.  So please share your thoughts…

What do you LIKE about cubicles?  What do you DISLIKE about cubicles?  What’s your best office cubicle story? 

Let’s see what others are thinking about this unique office working arrangement.  I’ll be sharing more about the hidden side of cubicle-land in my next postings. 

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Category : Your working environment | Blog